Weight Loss Applications and Affordances: Datafying Our Bodies
Feeling Unhealthy? There’s an App For That.
“Platforms gain not only access to more data but also control and governance over the rules of the game” (Srnicek 47). While users receive weight loss plans and diet information from the platforms, the Noom and Weight Watchers also gather users’ personal information for their interest, for product improvement and in some cases sharing information to third parties. Collection of users’ data evokes questions of privacy and transparency, prompting us to look at weight loss applications, and to analyze the way they encourage users to share their personal information through examining the affordances of the platform. Privacy policies within health and fitness apps are often tough for the average user to understand or they are incorporated in the app in a way that makes it easy for users to disregard them completely (Rohan & Dehlinger 348). It is essential to understand the way these policies are incorporated into an app’s affordances and how weight loss apps are able to encourage users to share that kind of information daily.
To access the services of both Noom and Weight Watchers, users must pay a monthly subscription; this gives most users a sense that their payment for services is the only exchange that is taking place. However, as Noom and Weight Watchers are internet-based service providers, they follow the ideals of the “gig economy” (Srnick 37).Venturini et al. state that “while digital platforms still rely on classic business models based on the exchange of information against money (through subscriptions) or against attention (through advertising), they also increasingly trade information against other information” (4197). As Noom and Weight Watches deals in a subsection of health care, they can be privy to highly personal information relating to their user’s bodies, nutritional habits, and other personal data. It is important to understand how each company persuades its users to disclose personal data and how this data is being used.
To discover the exact way Noom and Weight Watchers (WW) encourage users to provide personal data, we will be using the walkthrough method. Created by Ben Light, Jean Burgess, and Stefanie Duguay, this method is an approach to the critical analysis of apps. This method requires the researcher to go through each step that a user would take to sign up for an application/program, everyday use, and the discontinuation of use in order to explore the way a user experiences the app and analyze the various affordances that form and are formed by cultural narratives. The walkthrough method is grounded in actor-network-theory, in this case “apps, user interfaces and functions are therefore understood as non-human actors that can be mediators” (Light et al. 6). Weight loss apps like Noom and WW are transformative, they are influenced by and influence sociocultural representations. There are many “master narratives” present in the affordances of the Noom and WW apps, which can be discovered and analyzed through the walkthrough method. While these narratives perpetuate dominant cultural norms which can be damaging to users, the affordances that push these narratives do so while prompting users to share their data. This is how apps like Noom and WW can manipulate users using master narratives and prompts within their affordances to accrue more user data. The main narrative being utilized by weight-loss applications is of course the stigma around fat bodies and the idea that women need to lose weight in order to live happy and fulfilling lives. Cognitive affordances like “Ready to Commit to Changing Your Life?” (Noom) featured on one of the registration pages, frames weight loss as life changing and necessary. This is how technology can communicate “cultural discourse” (7) while eliciting user data.
Walkthrough of Noom
Before even setting up a personal account, first-time app visitors are asked their weight goals, the weight loss speed on a 9 point scale, gender, age, starting weight, and height. The registration and entry of Noom requests users to sign up with either email, Apple, or a Facebook account, and “choosing between these routes presents different app mediators and alters the user experience” (Light et al. 12). For instance, signing up with Facebook implies the sharing of personal information on the user’s Facebook profile, because this option initiates a push notification saying that “this allows the app and website to share information about you.” Similarly, creating an account with Apple requires sharing the email tied to the users’ Apple ID. Signing up with an email automatically gives Noom the address to send users their advertisements and promotional emails.
The finishing of the survey leads to the start of the trial. Regarding everyday use, Noom expects the users to weigh themselves every day to create a weight graph. Besides recording users’ food and calories, Noom also records the number of steps as an indicator of exercise amount shown in a linear graph. The whole interface constructs the governance of Noom that “manages and regulates user activity” (Light et al. 10). The list of to-do prompts users to complete them, and when it is done it turns grey, consistent with the tick mark on each date above. The ease of access and user interface arrangement together encourage the user to continue using and sharing their data, as they reinforce the impression of “customized” and “personalized” in the user interaction process.
Weight Watchers Walkthrough
Similar to Noom, the WW program encourages users to track everything they eat, what activities they do and has also partnered with the app Breethe in order to encourage mindfulness programs. Food tracking includes food from restaurants and chains like Subway, Starbucks and McDonalds.Weight Watchers users log their weight once a week and are prompted to log all their meals and snacks. Exercise is logged in order to gain points that can then be used towards food items. Depending on their plan they receive a specific amount of points per day that are then diminished by food that is attributed specific points. They have an extra weekly allowance of points as well to make it more flexible. When certain goals are reached WellnessWins are earned which can then be used to “purchase” rewards. Items such as memberships to cooking classes or fitness programs are added incentives for users to track their progress daily. WW has evolved their narrative around weightloss to put more emphasis on wellness. This also means that the information they collect from users goes beyond diet and physical activity. Users can track their mindset through programs affiliated with the app as well as track their sleep. They are encouraged to share every aspect of their life with the app as well as other users through WW Connect, which is a Facebook style platform on the app for sharing goals and recipes with other members. The various programs within the app have permitted WW to ask more and more from their users in terms of freely given data.
Noom constructs certain ethnicity and culture of its users
The Noom application is available in the Chinese account’s apple store while WeightWatchers’ application can not be found there, but interestingly, even if the application is downloaded from the Chinese Apple store, the language is still automatically English. Noom provides non-western languages on the website, while WeightWatchers automatically directs the user to the website of the user’s country, which are dominantly Western countries, as Israel is the only Asian country available as a choice. Additionally, Noom’s survey and the everyday use of food search or recipes follow Western food culture. For instance, when asking about what do users eat for lunch and the three choices available are salad, sandwiches or wraps, and others. The “other” option serves as a refusion to non-Western cultures. In other words, it refuses and discourages non-Western cultures by setting the language and food culture barriers and embeds “cultural discourses” (Light et al. 11), demonstrating the construction of users’ ethnicity.
Weight Watchers’ engages various programs to obtain more data
Though both Privacy Policies are not transparent with the full extent of data gathered, stored, and shared and who exactly are the third parties mentioned, it is clear that data is generated at every point of the user experience, and this data is shared to a multitude of third parties.
In conclusion, both Weight Watchers and Noom collect users’ data more than diet and physical activity information through interface design and platform affordance. The language they use to persuade users to share their data includes for the purpose of users’ wellness and personalized health plans. Likewise, the language in the private policy of both platforms is ambiguous and sometimes contradictory, hiding the specificity of privacy questions.
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